issue 219 - May 1991
'The cock that leaves no hen unruffled' is the translation of Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa Za Banga, the full name assumed by President Mobutu in 1965. He is master of the cult of personality. The 'Supreme Guide', 'Father' and bearer of a self-awarded Oscar for Development has his portrait hung in every public place, printed on textiles and, before the re-instatement of the Church, at the altar.
But Mobutu, who seized power with a military coup in 1965, is popular because he has replaced violent uprisings and struggle for power following Independence in 1960 with 'unity' and 'peace'. For Africa's third largest country, riddled by a network of rivers, with a rainforest the size of Europe, and over 200 ethnic groups, such apparent stability is a feat which some believe can only be achieved by tyrannical rule and centralised government.
The alleged killings by police of 50 university students demonstrating in February 1990 against increased public transport fares and inadequate study grants illustrates Mobutu's method of peace.
Zaire's corruption, most recently exposed by the Belgian press, has soured relations between Zaire and its former colonizer. But the leakage of funds, coupled with the country's lack of basic infrastructure, compounds Zaire's difficulties. Missionaries provide nearly all education and health facilities.
Though primary education is officially compulsory, only half the school-age population progress to secondary education. Of the girls, only about one third enrol; their sisters are kept at home to work the fields or care for siblings while the mother sells produce in the market.
'Education means equality and opportunity' is the rhetoric. But there are no state funds for fuel, building materials and the unreliable transport facilities that thwart development and domestic and international trade.
Though less than three per cent of the land is cultivated, its fertility guarantees subsistence living. Outside the cities, no-one need ever starve. Though AIDS is widespread, children die from more basic diseases like malaria, and malnutrition.
Transportation is appalling. Office des routes, the Government office responsible for the upkeep of roads, is aptly nicknamed Office des trous (of holes). Like hydro-electrics and diamonds, tourism is as yet untrammelled.
So tracking the Virunga mountain gorillas or voyaging up the Zaire river is an exercise in initiative and bribe-dodging. But, once you've caught the Zairian sense of humour and shuffled to their pulsating music, life, as pop star Papa Wemba would say, is rosy.
LEADER: President Mobutu Sese Seko
ECONOMY: GNP per capita $170 (US $19,840)
PEOPLE: 34.5 million
HEALTH: Infant mortality 81 per 1,000 live births (US 10 per 1,000)
CULTURE: Former Belgian Congo now suffering severe post-colonial decay.
Sources: The Africa review 1990, State of the World's Children 1991; Europa Yearbook 1990
Last profiled in November 1985
Mouvement Populaire de la Révolution (MPR) sole legal party.
This article is from
the May 1991 issue
of New Internationalist.
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